Fact Checking “The Finest Hours” Movie

The Finest Hours is a faithful and truthful telling of the rescue of crewmen on the tanker the SS Pendleton.  I can say that as an author of a book about the rescue — Two Tankers Down — that also covers the rescue of the SS Fort Mercer.

Truthful does not in all cases mean factual.  There are no huge bloopers in the movie.  There is some compounding of characters and time is both stretched, cut and pasted.

For me it works, and I figure I’m in as good a position as anyone to judge this.  I spent hours and hours talking with Bernie, researching the wreck, combing through archived records and cross-checking with him for my book on the rescue, “Two Tankers Down.” 

In other words, I know this subject matter well, and I am not indebted to the studio.

So how did the Hollywood guys do on the facts?

Pendleton_2_sm

Bernie

Based on the cheesy previews and trailers, I was prepared to flatten this baby.  But in fact, it’s well done and true to the event and the people even if the facts are not sometimes.

There are no “Pants on Fire” rankings here.  And some of my “catches” are nerdish maritime writer notes.  What some people MIGHT think are whoppers I can accept and I’ll explain why.

Let the Fact Check begin:

  1. Miriam Webber did not come down to the Coast Guard Station.
    In fact, she was very sick at home with the flu.  The couple had been married before the rescue. She did not know Bernie was in an impossible mission until after it was over.  But of course she was aware all coasties would be endangered that night.Why it doesn’t matter to me:   The film pretty well represents the couple’s romance, right down to the “bear skin” coat.  The presence of Miriam in the film allows for a nice conflict of concerns:  a human concern for life versus the Coast Guard code of the ‘You have to go out– you don’t have to come back.”   I guess for purists this would be a pants on fire fact fail.  For me, I think it’s a great bit of dramatic license that while not factual gets the truth across.I asked Bernie about how Miriam learned of the rescue and here is his reply from 2008. Emphasis mine.

    Bob
           John Stello and his wife Jean were our much loved neighbos when we lived on Sea View Street in Chatham. John a fisherman and Jean a fisherman’s wife were well aware of the ways of the sea and how things were communicated among sea fareing folks. As we were getting aboard our dory at the fish pier John who was standing in the lee of the fish shack called down to me and said Webber you better get lost before you get to far down the harbor. I understood his message. In turn I laid the trusted responsibility on him as a friend, neighbor, and fisherman, to be the one to let Miriam know whatever happens. John understood, he knew she was sick at home and that she being a coast guardsmans wife realized a storm was brewing would already be concerned whether I would be called out. That’s why he waited until ithe rescue was over and we had returned safely so he would be in a position to deliver whatever the outcome was. So your corr rect with your observation.
    Bernie
           
  2. Bernie was far taller and less pretty than Chris Pine.
    Bernie was kind of a big lug of a guy. 6 foot 2 and 170 at his prime. Pine is too pretty and too short.
    Okay, but Pine does a pretty good job of playing Bernie as the good-hearted and well-intended fella he was. If there is a critique here, I’d say the director portrays Bernie as a little dumb and simple.  He wasn’t.  He was cagey enough to know questions I would ask him before I asked them.  The guy had been admitted to a top prep school.  He had an unerring ability to compute multiple factors in his head — navigational and personal.  On the other hand, Bernie often played dumb.  And in social matters, he could be dumb. I can’t fault Pine’s performance at all and feel it’s on the money. And the my critique here is not a serious one or deal breaker.
  3. The Pendleton did not split at a weld.
    I told you this would get a little nerdy.  But T-2 tankers did not have welding faults — though it was widely suspected they did.  Their fault was in the type of steel used, which under 50 degrees turned brittle.  Cracks would form and race through the whole hull.  The “crack arrestors” or steel belts were there to stop that, not reinforce the welding.  This is about a big a false fact as I can find.  But it’s not crucial to the plot or the fact that the ships were flawed.  There was no gradual split.  There was a loud bang — and a separation.
  4. At times the movie actually understates conditions.
    I’ve read some reviews that say the angle of the lifeboat ascending waves was improbable.  The movie had it right.  It might have been interesting to dwell on the boat descending waves — when Webber had to jam the engine in reverse to slow the boat as it gained speed.  Had he not done that, the boat would have essentially kept going to the bottom.
    Other understatements: Bernie emerged from the “bar” crossing with windshield fragments embedded in his skull.  The men in the engine room of the boat fried great sections of their arms on the hot motor.  Not essential to the movie, and I thought actually showed some restraint.
  5.  The “Lost Man” was probably “lost” before he hit the water.
    If I did nothing else through Two Tankers Down, I hope I eased Bernie’s mind on this death.  Throughout his life Bernie was haunted by the one guy he lost.  He mentioned this frequently in conversations and correspondence.  The crew and the rescuers even concocted a story to say that Tiny was the last man down the ladder — and had waited until all were clear.
    In fact, Tiny was probably in the advanced stages of hypothermia.  He was a large man, 300+ pounds.  And at the top of the ship, he had stripped off all his clothes, in the advanced stages of hypothermia.  This phenomenon is known as “paradoxical undressing.”  The blood flows suddenly from the heart to the extremities and causes a feeling of burning.  Once in this state, few come back.  So yes, the rescuers could not get Tiny in the boat.  But almost certainly, even had they been able to wrestle the huge man up over the side, he would have passed.
  6.  Livesey and Bernie had no beef
    More dramatic license here.  Bernie and his crew member had no quarrel or grudge as suggested in the film.  They respected each other.  The director uses the grudge as a way of referring back to the story of an earlier failed rescue — when Webber and others tried in vain to reach a fishing boat on the other side of the Chatham Bar.Again, in my mind: poetic license granted.  This worked for me as a dramatic device.
  7. There is a bittersweet ending to the real story.
    The movie tells the tale well and has no obligation to go beyond the story.  Truth is life got very complicated for Bernie after the awards with some of the brass.  He was offered the Lifesaving Gold Medal and declined it unless his whole crew got it. (They did.) He was nearly court martialed for disobeying the order to take the boat out to sea to offload the rescued.
    Worse, some of his own colleagues shunned him in the egalitarian ranks of the non-officer corps, or gave him the cold shoulder.
    Uncomfortable with the spotlight, he nevertheless was forced to do speech tours with the Coast Guard brass when he wanted nothing more to get back on his boat with his crew.
    Then, as a publicity project, in the early days of the Vietnam War, the Coast Guard shipped him over in charge of a riverine warfare gunboat.  There he performed close-in duty, in the mode of Apocalypse Now.  It’s the one thing I could not get him to talk about. He retired from the Coast Guard shortly after this tour, thinking the Coast Guard had moved into another era.
    The good news is he maintained his sense of honor and self dignity.  He actively chose to stay within the working ranks of non-commissioned officers when he might easily have become an officer.  Decades later, Coast Guard rescue workers still talk of him.In Bernie’s own words, this is how he got caught between the cultural changes of the Coast Guard and the nation torn apart by Vietnam.

    Bob
     

      I gave a lot of thought about your question  re CG change and my retirement. It would take a book to detail the events. Returning from Merchant Marine duty in the S. Pacific during WWII and joining the CG at the tail end 1946 my career spanned the waning days of that war through Korea on through Vietnam.

     

     The things that went on, the officer enlisted relationship, the equipment, would not be believed by the modern generation. 
     
      As the Officer in Charge of the Coast Guard Cutter Point Banks when I received orders to Vietnam along with my crew it was the beginning of a chain reaction that not only affected those of us directly involved, but the whole service and would change it forever.
     

      Immediately my family and I were besieged by the Anti Vietnam crowd and the John Birch Society.

     

    Cape Codders, friends, relatives and neighbors alike took positions that only confused the family and made my leaving more difficult. It got so bad Miriam and the children had to leave our home on the Cape and came to Florida to get away from it all until I returned.

    Upon returning to the States, picking up the family in FL, returning to the Cape and duty aboard CGC Hornbeam I realized just how much they had endured. I retired with the hope of keeping us together and bringing us back to normality. However, it had far reaching affect. There’s so much more however, for you purposes nuf said. It’s very difficult to condense the total picture. Hope this has been of some help?

    B

  8.  The movie may slightly have overstated Bernie’s natural courage and understated his doubts.

    Throughout his voyage to the bar, Bernie kept saying to himself that they would call him back, he hoped they would call him back.  I mention this not to criticize Bernie but to underscore the fact that he was a real human being with real thoughts, not a hero sprung from whole cloth.  I can’t fault the director too much here. And there are only so many interior thoughts you can convey.

  9. The conflict with the Pendleton crew was overstated; the engineer’s “plan” exaggerated
    Chief Engineer Sybert had little trouble controlling the crew.
    His plan to run the ship up on a  sandbar came as the opportunity presented it, not through careful planning.  Moreover, he had no conflict with the captain of the ship, who followed Sybert’s advice.
  10.   They did not sing a sea chanty as they motored toward the bar.
     They sang the hymn Rock of Ages. 

Let me know what other questions you have.  Also, if you’re interested in the other wreck that day — involving the SS Fort Mercer — you’ll find it in my book, Two Tankers Down. 

 

 

 

Comments
  1. Sorry but haven’t read either book or seen movie yet but heard couple of times about “Hollywood” scene where Chatham-ites use headlights to help guide them back to Fish Pier…wouldn’t they have been easily able to see Chatham Light given the close distance to it from pier and wreck thus making the headlight thing illogical at best? The headlights story was mentioned by Michael Tougias when he gave a lecture at Eldredge Library last fall as being as movie add-on. Not sure if it was same back then, but I’ve read that Light was/is visible for up to 22 miles so being seen less than about a mil

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  2. Sorry but haven’t read book or seen movie yet but heard couple of times about “Hollywood” scene where Chatham-ites use headlights to help guide them back…wouldn’t they have been easily able to see Chatham Light given the close distance to it from pier and wreck thus making the headlight thing illogical at best? The headlights story was mentioned by Michael Tougias when he gave a lecture at Eldredge Library last fall as being as movie add-on. Not sure if it was same back then, but I’ve read that Light was/is visible for up to 22 miles so being seen less than about a mile away seems possible.

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  3. Robert Frump says:

    Author of Coast Guard Rescue Book Launches Fact Check of “The Finest Hours”
    Author Robert Frump has launched a detailed fact check blog about the movie “The Finest Hours” Frump wrote Two Tankers Down, a book that chronicles the Bernie Webber rescue — an heroic act portrayed in The Finest Hours
    Share on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail a friend

    Bernie in the CG 36500
    “…there are some errors — some big ones. But in my mind..justified by the truths the movie tells…” Bob Frump
    Summit, NJ (PRWEB) February 01, 2016

    Author Robert R. Frump has launched a fact check assessing inaccuracies in the movie The Finest Hours.
    “It is a good movie that captures the spirit and the truths of a famous Coast Guard rescue lead by Bernie Webber,” said Robert R Frump, the author of Two Tankers Down, a book that tells the tale of the rescue of the SS Pendleton and the SS Fort Mercer.
    A truthful message does not always mean a factual message however, said Frump, a former maritime writer of The Philadelphia Inquirer and the author of a book about the wreck of the SS Marine Electric, “Until the Sea Shall Free Them.”
    “Overall, the movie really respect the story here and the values of Bernie Webber,” Frump said. “There are surprisingly few flubs on facts. They are accurate even to the Dodge Power Wagon they use on the land-part of the story.
    “But there are some errors — some bigs ones. But in my mind, mostly justified by the needs of movies to merge characters and themes.
    To see Frump’s Fact Check, go to his blog.
    For media interviews, please drop a line by email and set up a time with Mr. Frump. For more information about the other tanker that went down that day, see Frump’s book, Two Tankers Down.

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  4. impressive summary! I saw the movie last Saturday and was very impressed with how well it came across. I also suspected I’d be slamming some details of the movie (I had read a bit about the incident before seeing the movie), but was pleasantly surprised at what I ended up seeing. It would be VERY interesting to read more about the survivors of the Pendleton, but I’m curious… if the bow section ended up on a shoal what was the effort to see if there were survivors on it?

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    • Robert Frump says:

      Thank you for your time for posting. I’m not completely clear on the shoal question, but let’s take a shot.
      If you’re asking what was the rush if she was on the shoal, then the answer is simple Once she was driven up (and washed up) on the shoal, the Pendleton was still engulfed with waves. I think it was little more than a half hour after the rescue that the ship succumbed and sank. She was still taking a helluva a battering. The logic in driving her on the soft shoal was to avoid being driven into harder land or rocks, as I recall, which could have resulted in an abrupt rupture and splitting. The engineer had a very cool hand.
      If you are asking how did they determine there were survivors…. When the CG 36500 first approached, Webber and his crew thought they were too late. There was no one to see. They motored completely around the ship and were close to calling it off. If I recall correctly, Bernie thought to himself (or told me he did), we’ve made the trip for nothing Then one guy shined a light from the rail, and then dozens of people came to the rail and cheered the boatmen.
      I’ll be filing some blog features on some of the survivors who I have been in contact since my book came out.
      And I’m not selling books here. It is quite possible that the rescue of the men on the bow of the SS Fort Mercer was even a trickier affair, involving an even smaller boat and, unfortunately, more deaths. These guys were something

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      • Robert Frump says:

        Can’t find my final draft of Two Tankers Down but here is how I described the shoals and the rescue. They had a radio and could hear Webber’s boat as it made progress and hoped it would find them.

        Hicks and Sybert were taking drafts now not with the Jacobs Ladder but with a leaded line that gave them more precise readings. They were okay for now. But inevitably they were closing at an acute angle with the shore.
        Sybert decided it then. The boat was on the way. He could hear the boatsman – Bernie it must have been – say he was 45 minutes out, maybe. It looked as if there was a smooth sand bar not far away. How were the waves breaking on the bar? He asked Quiley. Smooth, sir. Not crashing. The waves were breaking smooth on the bar. It was daylight still. Lord knows what lay ahead in the night. Blind uncertainty and the chance of rocks. They were maneuvering and the ship was lurching even more now, listing 40 degrees to port.
        “Stop!” Sybert said. “We had better go on the beach than capsize.”
        And so he put the ship aground then. Stopped the maneuvering of the engines. Let the ship drift in on the bar and she touched the sand sweetly with only a bit of rock and sway.
        The men hunkered down in the passageway. Sybert told the engineers to secure the engine room and come topside. He did not want them trapped a dozen feet below if the compartments gave way. Already, the lower engine room was deep in water.
        He thought about launching the lifeboats then. Perhaps that was the way to go. Lower the men in the lifeboats, head for shore. He looked down the rail at the waves. They were churning, foaming monsters, some 20 feet, some 45 feet. And they came at sequences of 30 to 40 feet. A lifeboat would have little chance in such water. It would swamp almost immediately even if it could be launched.
        So the two-man watches were maintained and the men in the passageway kept their spirits up and ignored as best they could the fact that the ship was leaning and listing ever more sidewards. She was turned sidwards to the sea now on a sandbar and the waves battered in below. Whatever ballistics in the water she may have had were gone now and she sat stranded on the bar, a stub of a ship in the surf, taking a pounding.
        It was about 7 pm and dark when one of the lookouts thought he saw something moving out there. A light. A little light. It grew larger and from out of the 45 foot waves, he saw an audacious little lifeboat, searchlight probing here and there.
        “There’s a boat alongside the starboard side!” he yelled back to the men.
        There was a tendency to surge forward now.
        “Take it easy,” Sybert said. “Calm yourself.”
        Then he left the passageway. He peered down at the cork of a boat bobbing below. Then went back for the men.
        Line up on the starboard side, he said, and they did, fanned out into the wind. Hicks and Steele grabbed the Jacob’s Ladder and began to tie it to the rail. They could feel the ship list even farther to port. The ship would rock out and in, rock out and in.
        Steele looked down at the CG36500 and wondered, How in god’s name did these guys do this?

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      • Robert Frump says:

        Also this from my draft as Webber and crew searched for the ship.
        Webber had no time to confirm to check on the man’s condition. He was in a world of spook and wonder, danger too for that matter. He motored slowly forward and saw what he took to be the entrance to a tunnel – a tunnel they were headed into. Broken and twisted steel and wires marked the entrance to this tunnel and it rose up in the water with each wave and then settled back exhaling masses of foam. Each time it rose, waterfalls cascaded from it. Each time it fell, Webber thought, the clang of loose steel sounded as if the “tunnel” were groaning in pain. It had to be the Pendleton, he knew.
        Warily, Bernie maneuvered the CG 36500. He moved along the port side of the hulk. There were no signs of life. Up above, steel railings were bent like pipe cleaners. All this way they had come, and no one was left alive, Webber thought. His heart sank at the uselessness of their effort.

        He turned the spotlight on the stern and confirmed what they had found. “Pendleton” was painted on the ship’s hull.
        Then he rounded the hull and saw what looked like lights up there on the starboard side of the deck. Webber saw the lights, then one man. He looked as tiny as an ant. Webber said to himself, “Holy shit! The four of us came all this way for one man.”
        Then the man left the rail. Why?
        Webber soon found out. Dozens of men crowded to the railing and yelled down to Webber, cheering. Webber looked up at the scene in absolute and utter awe. Men ringed the rail of the ship and sent up a weak cheer. The cheer swept over the Coastguardsmen like warm rain. It made their spines tingle and they all felt a surge of pride and adrenaline.
        Webber thought for a moment on how this all would work now. Now that they were here, how would they take them down?
        His answer came in the form of the Jacob’s Ladder fluttering and banging down the side of the hull as the ship pitched.
        Bernie brought the boat in closer to the ladder. He peered up at the ship. He could not help but think it.
        Guys, we should go up the ladder and wait for help. That half-ship seemed a lot sturdier than the CG 3600.

        But he said nothing. He did not have time to. Already, men were clambering down the ladder. The tankermen were coming home.

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      • My question was more specifically about the bow of the PENDLETON and it being stuck on the shoal. I did read somewhere about one of the other ships that stumbled on it thinking it was the MERCER and that they tried to rescue the one survivor that was still aboard but it was unsuccessful.

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  5. Robert Frump says:

    Quite right on the rescue, but I don’t recall the Pendleton bow being on a shoal. Chief Bangs’ boat was “ping-ponged” back and forth all day from one ship to the other. He did come across the Pendleton bow and saw one survivor. From Two Tankers Down:
    Chapter Eight: Ping Pong
    With Chief Bangs
    Sunday, February 18, 1952
    At 12:30 p.m., Bangs and his crew had launched to rescue the Fort Mercer, and found that the life boat’s radio transmitter was only half working. Bangs could hear fine, but say nothing. He headed toward Monomoy on his way to the Fort Mercer and stopped at the Pollock Rip light ship to check in and tell the station he could only receive.
    There he received new orders. Head for the bow of the Pendleton. There were two wrecks now. He was needed at the bow of the Pendleton.
    The seas were overwhelming. In a 36-foot lifeboat, Bangs and his crew faced 40-foot waves. Cutters, merchant ships and the lightships themselves were having difficulty maintaining stability in such a storm. The 125 cutters had turned back.
    But the little boat cut through the spray, the foam and the monstrous swells, climbing up the slope of one wave like a cog railroad engine, then slushing down the wall of the wave like a speed skier.
    And soon, a mile on, just as they said she was, there she was, the bow of the Pendleton. Tilted and rocking, bow pointing skyward, bridge awash in green water, the bow rocked and twisted still.
    Bangs came in close. He sounded his klaxon constantly. He completely circled the ship. There was no sign of life. No lights. But to be sure, he circled again, klaxon wailing, hailing anyone on board to signal back.
    He paused, assessed the situation, made one last pass in close and concluded no one had survived. The bow was perilously close to the shore now. Waves were breaking over the bridge. There was nothing he could do more. He returned to the Pollock, back across the hills of sea.
    Head to the stern of the Pendleton, he was ordered by Cluff. The Fort Mercer was in trouble but was farther out to sea. She would drift clear of Cape Cod but the Pendleton stern was on a drift line that would carry her into the surf.
    Bangs prepared to set out for the stern of the Pendleton.
    But as he did, more news came. The McCulloch, a cutter that could not get in close to the bow because of shallow water, was close enough to spot lights and life on the bow of the Pendleton. The CG 36850 had apparently roused a survivor. But he had not made it to the bridge in time for the small boat to see him.
    So Bangs now turned his little boat back through the same wild waters he had transited twice before. He and his crew were soaked to the bone and growing ever more hypothermic themselves. Still, they bore down on the Pendleton again.
    And yes! You could see him. It had been 1700 hours the first time they had circled the bow – still some light. Now it was 7 pm., dark. The McCulloch was circling near the bow. She was pumping over oil – a practice of the time intended to calm the seas. Bangs put his spotlight up on the starbord side of the Pendleton bridge and there the man was. The McCulloch had him spotlighted as well.
    A lone figure at the railing on the wing of the bridge. He was yelling to them. They could hear his voice – that there was a voice at least – but could not understand the words. They thought they said he was the last man, the only one left. They could not make out his face, did not know who he was .
    But they could get him. They knew they could. It was not impossible if they timed it correctly. Bangs had line-throwing equipment and other tools of rescue. He wanted to get in very close, find out for sure how many men there were to be rescued, not do this in a slip-shod manner. Quick movements now could cost lives, not save them. This is when you had to be coolest.
    Just then, a great curl of water, rose from behind the Pendleton bow and swept through the bridge and over the deck. It came from behind the man after covering the bridge. The man on the rail was caught up from behind by the wave and was carried forward by it.
    Still, he held on. He was on the outside of the ship now, on the wrong side of the rail, the ocean side of the rail, but he held on to the rail.
    He held on a long time. Then, he seemed no longer able to keep his grip. And as his grip lessened, he leapt with all his might out from the ship, out toward Bangs and the rescuers.
    And Bangs headed straight for him. It was dark. But the man landed only a boat-length away, just 30 to 40 feet away. The crew picked him up in their spotlight and crept toward him for the rescue.
    From behind them, a sea the size of a house rose up and carried the boat and crew forward. The CG36850, more buyouant than the man in the water, ran faster with the sea. So when the men next looked, the man was now several boat lengths behind them.
    Bangs did not waste time turning to. He kept the spotlight steadily on the man and backed the boat toward him. They were closer than before now, less than a boat length. He was not going to turn-to and lose sight of the man. That was the important thing. Keep him in sight, in the spot light.
    Just twenty feet away and they threw him a line. He was that close and they’d have him.
    And again the sea rose and carried them — carried them farther this time than the last time. The searchlight stayed on the man, lost him, found him, lost him, found him.
    Lost him. Found him. Lost him.
    Bangs thought he saw the lifejacket, then lost it. Thought he saw it, could not confirm it. Back and forth, they plouoghed the waters, trying to fix where he was, where they were, all in a swirl of waves, eddies, cross currents, ripping winds, snow, sleet and spray, in the dead of night.
    They searched for more than hour. The McCulloch could not come closer for fear of running aground. Bangs looked up at the bridge and saw that for the most part, it was completely immersed.
    He returned to the light ship and there, fastened a line-on and road out the night. The conditions in Pollock Rip were nearly impassable. Sent to save seamen from two ships, he and his crew had tried valiantly. But they could no more that night.
    For a Coastie, there was no worse feeling.

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